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The interior of the first 737 MAX test aircraft 1A001, Photo Boeing

America’s air safety leadership takes a nosedive

Last week, more than 30 countries and airlines from India to Italy, China, Indonesia and Australia grounded all Boeing 737 Max 8 jets after a second fatal crash of the plane brought the death toll to 346 people.

Published: March 18, 2019, 6:22 am

    In the past, many countries have accepted that certification by the US aviation regulator, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) was a good enough reason to accept the plane as fit to use. Now it has turned out that the FAA is really Boeing under an alias and the validity of such certifications have become suspect.

    The impression that the FAA can no longer be trusted, has been strengthened by new reports about the outsourcing of FAA safety analyses to Boeing itself, and of the inappropriate certification process.

    The US had for decades taken the lead in issuing aviation safety guidance to carriers and countries, but the decision by China to ground its fleet will have serious repercussions.

    After the accident last Sunday when an Ethiopian Airlines plane dived into the ground south of the capital Addis Ababa at a nearly vertical angle, Boeing tried political pressure to prevent the grounding of the 737 Max, initially refusing to ground American Boeing flights.

    Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenberg even claimed that there was no safety problem, and no parallels to the crash involving the same type of plane in Indonesia five months earlier. But on Wedensday Canada joined most of the world in grounding the planes, citing new satellite data.

    The new reports about the outsourcing of FAA safety analyses to Boeing itself, and of the inappropriate certification process, add to the concerns that the FAA can no longer be trusted. If the FAA is internationally seen as a lobbying agency for the US airline industry, trust in the company will be eroded quickly.

    A detailed bombshell report published by the Seattle Times, summarized the plane’s fatal flaws.

    “[T]he original safety analysis that Boeing delivered to the FAA for a new flight control system on the Max — a report used to certify the plane as safe to fly — had several crucial flaws.

    Engineers directly involved with the evaluations or familiar with the document shared details of Boeing’s “System Safety Analysis” of the “Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System” (MCAS) with the newspaper.

    The engineers understated the power of the new flight control system, which was designed to swivel the horizontal tail to push the nose of the plane down to avert a stall. “When the planes later entered service, MCAS was capable of moving the tail more than four times farther than was stated in the initial safety analysis document,” the daily noted.

    There was also no account on how the system could reset itself each time a pilot responded, thereby missing the potential impact of the system repeatedly pushing the airplane’s nose downward.

    “Even a ‘hazardous’ danger level should have precluded activation of the system based on input from a single sensor — and yet that’s how it was designed.”

    According to the Seattle Times, managers at the FAA forced their safety engineers to delegate more certification tasks to Boeing itself. And because Boeing was eager to get the new version of the 737 on the market to catch up with Airbus’s A-320 NEO, shortcuts were taken to rush the safety analysis through.

    Sadly, not only was the MCAS system poorly engineered and the design uncertifiable in the first place, but the issue became even worse: The certification that was given relied on false data.

    The first MCAS design, on which the safety analysis and certification was based, allowed for a maximum trim movement by MCAS of 0,6 degree of a maximum of 5 degree. Flight tests proved that to be too little to achieve the desired effects and the maximum movement was changed to 2,5 degree. However, a safety analysis for the new value was never conducted.

    “The FAA believed the airplane was designed to the 0,6 limit, and that’s what the foreign regulatory authorities thought, too,” said an FAA engineer. “It makes a difference in your assessment of the hazard involved.” But none of the engineers were aware of a higher limit, said a second current FAA engineer.

    The Max 8 problem could have disastrous economic consequences for Boeing since it appears that the planes will be grounded for months. Boeing has sold nearly 5 000 of the 737 Max. So far only 380 have been delivered.

    Both Boeing 737 and the Airbus 320 types are single aisle planes with around 150 seats. Both are bread and butter planes sold by the hundreds with a good profit. In 2010 Airbus decided to offer its A-320 with a New Engine Option (NEO) which uses less fuel. Boeing then had to move quickly to counter the Airbus advance.

    President Trump’s trade negotiations with China depend on the Chinese willingness to buy a large number of Boeing planes. If the Chinese regulators do not accept the solution that Boeing provides, those trade negotiations will fail.

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    • Bryan O’Driscoll

      Considering how corrupt the FDA is when certifying drugs for big Pharma it should be no surprise that the FAA would turn out to be a corrupt organisation also. Big money is all that matters in the USA. And of course Israel.

    • Ron Wheeler

      Replacing people is easy, there are already too many – however profits are king. Most of the governing bodies of the US have indeed been subverted by corporations. It is the nature of capitalism – by design. Take away Lobbying, the legal form of bribery, and much of the problem vanishes.

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